Ironically, World Wide Web is not worldwide anymore for people living in Russia. A law outlining the ban was approved by the Duma, the lower house of parliament and was signed by President Putin. The law which came into effect on 1st November, saw Russia follow China’s footsteps; banning the use of VPNs and other tools known as anonymizers used to access restricted content which the government has deemed illegal on the internet.
Or Rather, the law requires the VPNs and the other specified technologies to corporate with Russian media watchdog and comply with its requests. This is a big blow to Russians as their privacy will be at risk, and they will miss out and also be limited to what the government will offer.
What’s a VPN?
A VPN, an abbreviation for Virtual Private Network is an encrypted tunnel of networks between two or more points that send and receive data. This tunnel of networks is made up of servers located in different places globally that enable one to access the internet from another location regardless of one’s physical location. In a nutshell, a VPN will mask your identity, and hence you’ll be anonymous when surfing the internet. A VPN will also enhance your security by blocking malicious sites among other advantages such as bypassing ISPs and unblocking geo-restriction4s. Best VPNs also keep your data private from prying eyes and often they don’t log any info or activities you do as that might implicate you in a law court.
What is the aim of the ban?
For now, the ban is not like that implemented in China – country wide restrictions, but it may be treading on the same path to the Great Firewall of China. According to business daily RBC, the head of the Russian State Duma’s information policy committee said that this law is meant to block access to restricted content which is deemed illegal by the government. It’s not supposed to impose restrictions on the good law-abiding citizens. How the distinction will be made between law-abiding and non-abiding citizens is still unclear. The scope of what is considered ‘illegal content’ is also not known as the government has and continues to impose more control regarding access to online content, the information it deems sensitive and even in some social media platforms. The ban is also justified as a necessary measure to help prevent the spread of extremism online. The banki.ru also reported that VPN providers would have access to the blacklist of banned sites and are required to act within the legal framework. That’s is, to block the sites even more, and that’s not what a VPN is supposed to do. It’s entirely the opposite.
It’s not yet fully known how it will work but the watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has been developing ways and measures to identify and block the restricted websites. The measures seem impossible to implement as the law exempts corporate VPNs. This exemption complicated the matter as it remains unclear how the watchdog will differentiate corporate and public VPNs which is not possible at the moment.
The law is geared towards transparency of VPNs, the ones that will oblige to avoid getting banned. When a VPN becomes transparent, it becomes useless in other words, at least in other functionalities. VPN features that will be rendered useless will include privacy and confidentiality, some security, and there won’t be unblocking to the said websites. To users, this means that you have to tread in the right tracks provided by the law and basically not to do what you have been doing by the VPNs and other tools that enable you to be anonymous. Users of the internet will be exposed to privacy risks, and the government may breach the CIA triad easily and whenever it wants to. It’s a surprise that Wikipedia is among the banned sites, reason being; it has information about taking drugs. Other sites include pornographic websites, extremist outlets, gambling sites among others that have topics and info which the Russian government considers sensitive.
Russian social media users are not sure if worse measures will be put in effect. Such as, will your internet be restricted if you try to access the banned sites. IT experts are saying it won’t, but we’ll wait and see. Search engine providers such as Google and Yandex were also presented with a tough situation. Banki.ru also reported that it’s up to search engines to block users and stop redirecting them to banned sites. If not, they will be held responsible. This law will also require Russian ISPs to restrict and block websites that provide VPNs and proxy services.
How worse will it get
This law was just a part of how the Russian government wants to control and restrict the internet available to its citizens. In another legislation that was signed by President Putin, Russia aims to have the control like that of China. That’s is, message service operators will be required to verify user’s identities through their phone numbers. The operators will also be required to cut off anyone who has been deemed by the government to be spreading what is considered illegal content.
At the UN, Russia is also pushing for more restrictive approaches to the internet; many governments fear the approaches will lead to the gradual shutdown of the open web. Russia advocates for a more restrictive internet in order to avoid the threat of terrorism and extremism. As Russia is also heading and preparing for the 2018 elections, it won’t be a surprise if much more laws regarding the freedom of the internet are passed, as it has been the case in the past years. Last year, a data retention law was passed that required internet service providers and other telecoms to retain traffic data for up to one year, this move is the main reason why VPN provider PIA, Private Internet Access to exit its presence out of Russia. In 2015, legislation that required all user data from Russian citizens to be stored in Russian-based servers was also passed.